Season of firsts began with a coach and a commit

The 2008 season has been one of firsts for the Saint Louis University women's volleyball program.

SLU defeated Stanford earlier this season for its first victory against a top-10 opponent. It was the final match of the Billiken Invitational, the first tournament played in SLU's new Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis. And the win over the Cardinal helped propel the Billikens into the American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 for the first time in the program's history.

Much of this year's accomplishments can be traced back to coach Anne Kordes' first recruiting class -- and the first player she signed, junior setter Whitney Roth.

When Kordes took control of the SLU program on Jan. 13, 2004, it was late in the recruiting cycle, but she made a decision not to hand out scholarships to players who wouldn't help fulfill her vision for the program.

Instead, she decided to focus on players who would join the program in 2006. Kordes immediately turned her attention to Roth, who grew up in her hometown of Louisville, Ky., and played for her father, Ron Kordes, at both Assumption High School (Anne's alma mater) and the Kentucky Indiana Volleyball Academy (KIVA). Anne hadn't known Roth personally, but her brother, John, also coached Roth during her club career.

A former setter at the University of Louisville and assistant at the University of Illinois from 1999 to 2003, Kordes knew exactly what attributes she needed in her future floor leader. At 5-foot-9, Roth was overlooked by some top-ranked programs that wanted a bigger block in a setter, but her skills and stature on the club scene were a perfect fit for Saint Louis.

"She's gritty and gutsy, and on top of that, she's quick," Kordes said. "Having trained setters, I thought, 'This is the kind of kid who I would love to train to be our first setter.' When she committed, all I had to say to some of the hitters and defensive [recruits] was, 'I got Whitney Roth from KIVA.'"

Training with the Kordes family at the high school and club levels for so many years gave Roth an inside knowledge of what it would be like to play for her new coach. But she had no way of knowing what kind of an impact her commitment would have on the rest of the class.

"She had basically been recruiting me since she got the job at SLU," Roth said. "She would keep me updated on who she was recruiting in my class, and if we were in the same club tournament, we would introduce ourselves to each other. I was pretty lucky to commit first and then have all these great players commit after me."

That's because once Roth was in the fold, others were quick to follow. After Roth committed in 2005, the Billikens soon added local product outside hitter Bridget Fonke and middle blocker Sally Warning. Outside hitter Sammi McCloud, who grew up only 20 miles away in Columbia, Ill., was next to sign, and libero Whitney Behrens of St. Louis rounded out what later proved to be a program-changing recruiting class.

"Knowing that [Roth] wanted to come to Saint Louis and build up this program was a lift for all of us who were being recruited," McCloud said. "More people kept committing and I thought, 'I want to be a part of that, too.' It definitely had an impact on what made me decide to come to Saint Louis."

It didn't take long for Kordes' first recruiting class to make an impact of its own. With three of five baby Billikens in the 2006 starting lineup, SLU bounced back from a 14-16 record the year before to post a 22-9 record, win the Atlantic-10 tournament and make the program's first appearance in the NCAA tournament.

McCloud was named the Most Outstanding Player of the A-10 tournament after the Billikens dethroned three-time defending champion Dayton on the Flyers' home court, while Roth and Behrens also earned a spot on the all-tournament team.

The 2007 season wasn't quite as successful despite a 23-7 record, primarily because Xavier knocked SLU out of the conference tournament in the semifinals. But the Billikens were confident that playing opponents from the top conferences in the regular season had prepared them for an even more challenging schedule in 2008.

"Anne always tries to schedule the best teams because she believes [that] to be a great program, you have to beat the best teams," Roth said. "Scheduling great teams is the first step, beating the great teams is the second step. That's the way she wants to build the program."

With a veteran roster returning in 2008, Saint Louis was more than ready to take that next step. And Kordes gave her team every opportunity by scheduling games against some of the most successful programs in the country -- Illinois, Stanford, Purdue, Utah and defending national champion Penn State.

If the Billikens needed a signature victory to enhance their stature at the national level, they got it on Sept. 6 with a victory over Stanford in front of a record crowd of 2,152 in Chaifetz Arena. SLU went toe-to-toe with the then-No. 3 Cardinal, gutting out at 27-25, 20-25, 25-22, 25-22 win and giving their fans a taste of what could be expected from Saint Louis volleyball in the future.

All five members of what is now the junior class played key roles in the victory. McCloud put down a team-high 19 kills and had 14 digs, Fonke added 15 kills and 12 digs and Warning had 14 kills and 7 blocks. Behrens had a team-high 17 digs and Roth had 56 assists while leading SLU to a .273 hitting percentage.

That win created a buzz around the country and gave the team and program an entirely new level of excitement.

"Because that victory was so early in our season, it got our name out there and made us realize early on how capable our team was," Roth said. "It kind of boosted our confidence. It was a great foundation for what has turned out to be a great season."

Since falling to the Nittany Lions on Sept. 20, the Billikens have reeled off 12 consecutive victories and have lost only five sets. On Oct. 20, SLU achieved another milestone when it was ranked nationally for the first time in the program's history, coming in at No. 25. This week, the team climbed to No. 21.

"You can dream about it all you want, but it's so surreal right now," McCloud said. "I definitely believed that we would make it to the [NCAA] tournament, and I knew we would be a dominant force in the conference, but everything that is happening now … I'm along for a great ride and I'm happy to be here."

The Billikens are clinging to a slight lead over Dayton in the West Division of the A-10. SLU will travel to Duquesne on Thursday and will host Rhode Island on Sunday. But the top seed for the upcoming A-10 tournament likely will be decided on Nov. 15, when the Billikens play at Dayton.

Saint Louis can earn its second NCAA tournament bid when it hosts the conference championship for the first time on Nov. 21. But the Billikens already have proven they are capable of achieving yet another first this season -- an NCAA tournament victory.

"All the things we said would happen if [the players] stayed home [in St. Louis] and made something big out of this program -- 'You're going to be local heroes, be in the SLU Hall of Fame' -- are happening," Kordes said.

"I knew great things could happen here. I had a great vision for this program, but I'm shocked at how fast it has all happened."

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.